Randy Johnson at Safeco

Randy Johnson’s start at Safeco Field last Friday night for San Francisco was probably his last in Seattle.  I got to the game early, hoping for a Felix Hernandez bobblehead (which didn’t happen), but also to see Johnson warm up before the game. I figured it was the last chance I’d have, and a lot of others figured the same way: the crowd was five or six deep all along the Giants’ bullpen.  We didn’t get to see the bid for 300 wins that was supposed to make Friday’s game uniquely compelling, but standing in the crowd pressed up against the pen, waiting for the Big Unit to make his appearance, that didn’t really seem to matter. Most everybody was there because of what Johnson had done in Seattle, not because the cumulative digits with Houston, Arizona, etc. had turned over enough times to put him within grasp of the 300-victory club.

This wasn’t the playoffs or a crucial late-season game, but the excitement around the bullpen was at that sort of level as Johnson first tossed the ball in the outfield, then slid open the gate and made his way into the pen.  Really meaningful Mariner games have been scarce ever since 2001, but Randy was going to give us one even if he got ejected in the first inning. No matter what happened in the game, this would be our last chance to see him up close, so it’s no wonder the stairs leading down to the bullpen were jammed, you saw cameras everywhere, and we craned our necks through the crowd to get a better glimpse. Not even the dour and usually efficient Safeco ushers were able to really manage this crowd.

As Randy threw, one guy who looked a bit like Jay Buhner kept yelling “Randeeee!,” hoping for a wave or glance from Johnson; he didn’t give it. We’ve all heard about the Big Unit’s game face, but I’d never seen it up close.  Separated by a few rows of people, what comes across most clearly is what he doesn’t do: look over at us or the field, or up at the sky, or into the stands, or say anything, sniff the air, take care of an itch, motion at anything other than the catcher.  It’s just him, the ball, the pitching motion, and a catcher’s glove. The “Randeeee!” guy said as much to me when I admitted that yes, I wanted the Unit to win and leave Seattle with a bang. I think we were all hoping for at least a 10-strikeout game, and with luck, a no-hitter.  The Mariners could make up the loss sometime later: getting a game closer to .500 in late May just wasn’t as important as Randy Johnson coming back and delivering something memorable for his audience.

Johnson stopped throwing, faced the bullpen wall, took his cap off. It took a second for me to realize it was time for the national anthem. I felt sheepish for paying really too much attention to just some warmup throws, put away the camera, tried to regain some perspective. A few people around the bullpen kept taking shots of Johnson as the anthem played.

Up in the left field stands, there was an old lady with ’95 on the back of her blue Mariners cap in the row beneath me, some quiet Giants fans on both sides, some rowdier Mariners and Giants fans farther off to the side. When Aaron Rowand hit his leadoff homer our way, I noticed the vendors with their orange shirts were practically silent Giants supporters, adding to the already sizable mix of Giants’ colors at the ballpark.

Randy came in with a 94 mph fastball in the first inning, then he walked Adrian Beltre after getting an 0-2 count and closed the first with a swinging strikeout of Wladimir Balentien. It felt a little like old times: the dangerously fast and erratic Big Unit of the early ’90s was trying to re-emerge. Through five innings, Randy was still a little erratic, striking out six, but sometimes missing with his slider way outside and low to lefties, and taking a while to get hitters out. He’d thrown about 90 pitches. The Mariners were just getting singles, including one silly bloop over Johnson’s head by Kenji Johjima that might have gone 80 feet, but no one could catch.

In the bottom of the sixth, it became obvious this wasn’t the 30-year-old Unit, or even the 40-year-old Unit: he went to 3-2 counts on Russell Branyan and Jose Lopez, took 10 pitches to strike out Branyan after getting a 1-2 count, and had Lopez eke a single through the infield on his eighth pitch after getting an 0-2 count. These were guys he would have struck out quickly a few years ago. He’d thrown about 115 pitches, and just wasn’t getting the ball by hitters. Randy still has some speed, he’s still effective, he’s still pretty durable: but he’s not Cy Young material anymore.

He left the game to unanimous cheers, lifted his left arm to acknowledge them as he crossed into foul territory, and settled into the dugout. We might have brought him back out with renewed applause, but an NBA highlight flashed on the screen, and the moment was over.

For whatever reason, the Mariners didn’t do anything to acknowledge Johnson’s career with the team, unless that came before I got to Safeco: no highlights on the video screen, no call for applause from the fans, no first pitch thrown out by Dan Wilson or another player from the ’90s Mariner teams. That didn’t seem right, but maybe the ownership still resents him leaving town, and anyway he’s been gone long enough that they figured it wasn’t necessary. Still, when I looked from the left field stands toward the street, there was a banner attached to a lamppost with Wilson leaping into Johnson’s arms after defeating the Angels in the ’95 division playoff.

So exactly what does all this have to do with 1995? Well, I didn’t go to any of Randy Johnson’s three earlier returns to Seattle, with the Diamondbacks in 1999 and then twice with the Yankees, in 2005 and 2006, so I don’t know how those ones compare. But it’s obvious the Big Unit’s fans are still legion in Puget Sound, more than a decade after he left town.

This time was different, I think, simply because of the distance time provides. Randy’s practically at the end of his career, with quite a few more wins after leaving Seattle than he had with the Mariners; kids born in 1995 will be going to high school in the fall; the Kingdome’s a fading memory. There must be a few people still accusing Johnson of malingering in 1998 or just upset that he didn’t stay on with Seattle. But the people who were at Safeco on Friday to see Johnson pitch were paying tribute to what he’d done for their lives as baseball fans by carrying the Mariners in ’95 and pitching a lot of memorable games for the team in his 10 years at the Kingdome. He gave us those memories, and now was coming back one last time to revitalize them by simply showing up on the mound: that’s all he had to do.

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